Tag Archives: Oberlin Conservatory

george lewis: the past is prologue

Editor’s Note: This profile of composer and cultural philosopher George Lewis first appeared in 2015, in a slightly different form, as the cover story in Issue #10 of the I CARE IF YOU LISTEN Magazine. We are re-posting an updated version here on acornometrics, with links to performances of George’s music and other materials. We are thrilled if this profile succeeds in bringing further much-deserved attention to George’s music. We appreciate, and concur with, Ensemble dal Niente conductor Michael Lewanski’s comment when the article first appeared: “George is one of the most unique and brilliant artists working today, and this article captures a bunch of things I love about him—the integrity of his artistry, his perpetual self-reinvention, and a certain contradictoriness that keeps him unpredictable all the time in the best possible way.”


George Lewis is a burly bear of a man with an infectious laugh that, like his music, is pure joy to hear. In a 40-plus-year career, so far, his many-faceted interests have led him to explore vast territory as a performer, improviser, composer, musicologist, writer, and cultural philosopher. His work in many realms has earned wide acclaim and awards such as a MacArthur Fellowship in 2002, an Alpert Award in the Arts in 1999, a U.S. Artists Walker Fellowship in 2011, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Since moving to New York in 2004 to fill the Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music chair at Columbia University, Lewis has concentrated his creative energies on composing fully-notated works for diverse ensembles that are delighting performers, critics, and audiences around the world. A long, fascinating path has led Lewis to this point in his career where he is producing a steady stream of commissioned works for prominent contemporary music organizations like International Contemporary Ensemble, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ensemble Dal Niente, and Oberlin Conservatory Contemporary Music Ensemble. In his most ambitious work to date, Lewis and a team of collaborators have crafted the experimental opera Afterword, premiered at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Chicago in 2015. Get ready for an opera unlike any the world has experienced so far. 

George Lewis’ Afterword . . . “Get ready for an opera unlike any the world has experienced so far.”


Although Lewis’ music has its genesis on the hard-knocks South Side of Chicago, he had the good fortune to attend the University of Chicago Laboratory School, where his interests in music (trombone), philosophy, and many other topics were encouraged and nurtured. In 1970 he headed for Yale University, intending to major first in political science, then in music. A chance encounter in the summer following his second year at Yale changed his course, when he began a lifelong involvement with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), where he was attracted to its combination of fearless experimentation and artistic communitarianism. Lewis decided to take a year off school to work with AACM musicians and study composition at the AACM School with Muhal Richard Abrams. When he returned to Yale he dropped the music major to focus on philosophy, and turned to the study of musical improvisation from a phenomenological perspective. 

In the 1970s, Lewis was earning growing recognition as a trombonist and composer/improviser in ensembles with fellow AACM members Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, and Douglas Ewart. He was also branching out to work with other kindred spirits, like John Zorn, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, and Fred Frith in New York and overseas. Sparked by an interest in the nascent use of interactive computer technology in music performance, Lewis moved to Paris in the 1980s to work at IRCAM, where he did groundbreaking development work that culminated in the Voyager music software system. An academic opportunity through contacts he made in Paris lured Lewis to the University of California, San Diego in the 1990s, where he cultivated his deepening interest in the musicology of experimental music. As the new millennium arrived, Lewis says, “the opportunity at Columbia in New York felt like going home.” And that homecoming has provided the impetus for this ongoing onslaught of new compositions. 

George Lewis


Growing interest in Lewis’ through-composed work was sparked by his North Star Boogaloo (1996), for percussion and fixed media, written at UCSD for Steven Schick, with a recorded spoken-word text by poet Quincy Troupe. It may be his most-performed work, Lewis says: “I get requests for the materials every year during recital season.” When he got to Columbia, he found it a conducive place for building on that platform. “I walked into a very supportive and encouraging environment with colleagues like Melissa Smey [Executive Director of the Arts Initiative and Miller Theatre] and Richard Carrick, who I knew at UCSD, and eager performers like Wet Ink Ensemble, who were mostly Columbia students at the time,” Lewis relates. He was also strongly energized by the weekly composition seminars on campus. By 2007-8, he realized that composing fully notated music is where he wanted to channel his creativity and see how far he could take that. “I realized that meant I had to develop a consistent practice,” Lewis says, ”one that enables adhering to schedules and keeping the works flowing.”  That started him researching the methodologies of other composers and retooling how he approaches his work. 


Percussionist Steven Schick (photo: Bill Dean)

In the process, Lewis has also reexamined his own musical aesthetic. “Works do come from places,” he says. “There’s a community of thought and culture behind every composition, and that is going to be audible in what you do.” Lewis describes his own cultural stance as cosmopolitan. As he puts it: “the past is prologue; where you’ve been is a prelude to where you’re headed.” And where he is headed is to be a conduit for the polyglot of influences he has experienced over the years—jazz, free jazz, improvisation, African American culture, visual art, western classical, avant garde, and contemporary music forms, and more—without limitations or genre pigeonholing. “The furthest thing from my mind is trying to simply translate something as complex and nebulous as the African American experience,” he says, “I’m just trying to make cool sounds.” Lewis’ insatiable appetite for uncovering new cultural threads to incorporate into his music can be heard in the “cool sounds” of his recent works, which bristle with raw energy in meticulously ordered chaos.


Lewis first connected with International Contemporary Ensemble when (then) co-Artistic Director and clarinetist Joshua Rubin inquired about playing Shadowgraph, 5 (1977), which he had discovered on the original Black Saint recording George Lewis: Shadowgraph. “I sent Josh the score and the ensemble started playing it all over the world in spectacular fashion; they play it much better than we ever did,” Lewis enthuses. That budding relationship led to a commission for a new work for sixteen players, The Will To Adorn (2011), which is named for a section of Zora Neale Hurston’s germinal 1934 Harlem Renaissance essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression.” Hurston discusses the African American cultural tradition of adornment, which she characterizes as “decorating a decoration.” As Rubin puts it, Lewis builds multiple layers “around solo lines that are literally adorned through ornamentation—inflections of the musical line that add motion, direction and complexity. An interesting anti-climax occurs mid-piece when the motion slows down enough, and the texture thins out enough to make the adornments themselves the prominent music, in a strange, bassy, burbling minimalism.”

International Contemporary Ensemble premiered The Will to Adorn, with Schick conducting, at a Miller Theater Composer Profile concert arranged by Smey in November 2011. Music critic Steve Smith, writing for the New York Times, called the work “a lavish charm bracelet of exuberant shades and explosive gestures. Absorbing in scope and expressive in detail, the piece offered compelling evidence of Mr. Lewis’s prodigious imagination and persuasive skill.” The work was subsequently given its European premiere in June 2014 at Southbank Centre by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, at the behest of resident composer Julian Anderson, who first met Lewis at IRCAM in the 1980s where they found a lot of interests in common. Anderson, in his program notes, describes the piece as “celebrating the colourful hats worn by African American women, and celebrating adornment and colour generally for their own sake, it is a joyous explosion of sound and energy that involves almost everyone in the ensemble all the time, yet has plenty of contrast and a wonderfully surprising narrative shape.”

2013-14 might be called Lewis’ “Ohio Period.” He was both Composer-in-Residence at Oberlin Conservatory and the featured composer at the 34th annual Bowling Green New Music Festival at the MidAmerican Center for Contemporary Music (MACCM) at Bowling Green State University, resulting in two commissions for large ensemble works. MACCM commissioned Lewis to write Assemblage (2013, for nine musicians) for Chicago-based Ensemble Dal Niente, the featured ensemble at the 2013 festival.

Lewis told Dal Niente conductor Michael Lewanski that Assemblage is a piece where “I encourage listeners to catch the bus and go along for the ride, unburdened by expectations of teleologies or global form.” Indeed, this is a manic 16-minute thrill ride for the ears. According to Lewanski, it employs constant, unexpected shifts of tempo, timbre, and texture. He calls it “a delight to listen to. There is something about it that resembles our modern life – a constant uncontextualized TV-channel-changing, as if the piece is looking at its phone and alternately checking its email, Facebook and text messages.” Fortunately, Assemblage is now available on a Ensemble Dal Niente recording from New World Records.

Lewis spent fall 2013 and spring 2014 residencies at Oberlin Conservatory conducting master classes with composition students, improvising from his laptop with students in the Technology in Music and Related Arts (TIMARA) program, and lecturing on “The Train as Metaphor in African American Music and Art.” During that time, he also composed Flux (2014, for sixteen players), for the conservatory’s Contemporary Music Ensemble (CME) and dedicated it to the memory of Wendell Logan, a longtime Conservatory faculty member and founder of its Jazz Program. Flux is inspired by JamPact JelliTite (for Jamila), a 1988 painting by Jeff Donaldson (1932-2004), and is full of “jump cuts…a recursive sense of decorating a decoration predominates,” Lewis states in his program notes. “The work features a relentlessly high-contrast sensibility; even quiet, contemplative passages never really come to rest.” 


JamPact JelliTite (for Jamila), by Jeff Donaldson

According to Timothy Weiss, Director of Oberlin’s Contemporary Music Division and conductor of the CME, they do not require composers-in-residence to compose a new piece. But Weiss says that Lewis “being the remarkably prolific composer that he is, wanted us to play a new work during his time here. It was a great thrill for me and the performers to work on Flux with George and he was able to make a significant imprint on the shape and energy of the performance.”

Also in 2014, Lewis had his second piece for symphony orchestra, Memex, performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony and its Principal Guest Conductor Ilan Volkov, a longtime admirer of Lewis’ work. (His first, Virtual Concerto, was debuted a decade earlier by the American Composers Orchestra.) Symphony orchestra commissions are rare for most contemporary composers and can be a daunting challenge. For Lewis, it became a little easier when he realized “I could simplify the task by thinking of the orchestra as a giant multi-track synthesizer.”

The name Memex is drawn from a 1945 essay in The Atlantic by Vannevar Bush titled “As We May Think.” Bush imagines a technological breakthrough that prefigures the internet and the world wide web, a “memex,” a mechanical supplement to one’s own memory using inference and association to tap into vast reservoirs of stored knowledge. Lewis found in this a fruitful metaphor for his composing process, as he states in the program notes for the piece. “Engagements with musical structures that operate in the manner of the memex and the Web can present a fecund combination of indeterminacy, agency, memory, and the ineffable moment of choice, all of which link composition out of real time with listening in the moment.”

Memex was premiered in February 2014 at City Halls in Glasgow, with subsequent global broadcast on BBC3’s Hear and Now program in April. The work explodes into a torrent of brilliant colors with the orchestra at full tilt, then unfurls into a maze to which there are as many solutions as there are listeners. Memex was given its second performance in November 2014 by the Radio Symphony Stuttgart, conducted by Volkov. 


In 2013, Lewis and his collaborators, director Sean Griffin and media/theater artist Catherine Sullivan, began developing an expansive experimental opera called Afterword. The title comes from the concluding chapter of Lewis’ definitive history of the AACM, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (2008). In the book’s “Afterword” chapter, Lewis stages a virtual, cross-generational, time-bending meeting of AACM members past and present to summarize the major themes of the work in high relief. This meeting of AACM luminaries, some of whom never met in real life, is drawn from more than 90 interviews Lewis conducted during his research and is the jumping-off point for the opera’s libretto. 


Catherine Sullivan and Sean Griffin

Sullivan and Griffin have worked together for over 15 years, “creating historically minded, personally voiced performances in immersive theatrical environments that deploy unexpected turns of logic, deconstructed modes of behavior, and a very tangible and essential sense of ensemble that grows out of an iterative development process based in improvisation,” according to Lewis. The team combined forces to workshop the opera in a University of Chicago course titled “Improvisational Dramaturgy,” sponsored by an Andrew Mellon Fellowship for Arts Practice and Scholarship through the University’s Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry.

While nominally an opera, Afterword is breaking with opera conventions in multiple dimensions. The performances combine “pre-structured music, text, scenes, sets, and movement in juxtaposition with analogous elements improvised in real time,” Lewis says. The singers each fill multiple roles and are called upon to perform notated and improvised music and spoken texts, all while acting and moving to create and transform the stage sets and their own stage personae. The stage settings consist of objects and images from public and personal collections and archives.  

Afterword was presented in a one-act preview version at Roulette in Brooklyn, May 2015, performed by Chicago vocalists contralto Gwendolyn Brown, soprano Joelle Lamarre, and tenor Julian Terrell Otis, with an International Contemporary Ensemble chamber orchestra. The fully realized Afterword was presented by the MCA Chicago as part of their celebration of the 50th anniversary of the AACM, which also included an exhibition, The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to the Present, curated by Dieter Roelstraete and Naomi Beckwith. The opera premiered at the MCA Edlis Neeson Theater in October 2015, with support from the MAP Fund and the Mellon Foundation.

Beyond the opera, per se, Lewis was deeply involved in other aspects of The Freedom Principle exhibition. The show presented “Rio Negro, a sound and sculptural/instrument installation in collaboration with fellow AACM member Douglas Ewart,” according to Beckwith, (then) the Marilyn and Larry Fields Curator at MCA. First shown in 1992, Rio Negro combines bamboo sculptures with advanced robotics that animate them. “Lewis has done extensive work on the intersection of music and art, making what he terms ‘interart’ analyses of the AACM and visual art collectives such as Africobra.” As a result, she says he “elucidates important parallels in the structure of these groups, pioneering much-needed terms like ‘collective orientation’ and ‘multidominance’ that allow for conceptual and cultural analysis of the visual art movements that run parallel to the AACM’s history.” The Freedom Principle exhibit ran from July 11 until November 22, 2015. 


Lewis’ deep immersion in his compositional practice is not deterring him from his other myriad pursuits. He continues teaching musicology classes, working one-on-one with composition students, and writing scholarly articles about many cultural topics. Another multi-year project he concluded in 2015 was publication of The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, which Lewis co-edited with Cornell musicologist Benjamin Piekut. A massive undertaking in two volumes, the Handbook examines the use of improvisational structures and techniques in a broad range of human activities as diverse as music, theology, critical theory, philosophy, city planning, and organizations. 

Despite his many accomplishments in a range of artistic and academic fields, what stands out most about George Lewis is his enormous generosity of spirit.

Despite his many accomplishments in a range of artistic and academic fields, what stands out most about George Lewis is his enormous generosity of spirit. Speaking for his International Contemporary Ensemble colleagues, Rubin says, “to have been able to collaborate with, talk with, and be mentored by George on so many levels has been an honor; his music and his writings have changed the direction of my musical life.” With eager collaborators like that, never fear, we are sure to be hearing a lot more of Lewis’ music. The commission requests keep flowing in, and, he says, “at this point, I’m not turning down any opportunity to make more cool music.” 


We are deeply indebted to George himself for the countless hours he spent talking with us and the mountain of source materials he provided. We are also grateful to others who contributed their insight: Tim Weiss of Oberlin ConservatoryMichael Lewanski of Ensemble Dal NienteJoshua Rubin of International Contemporary Ensemble, and Naomi Beckwith and Peter Taub of Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (at the time of original publication); plus some pithy remarks in print from Steve Smith in the New York Times and from composer Julian Anderson.

soundtrack for a long march to justice

by Arlene Dunn, December 2013

[Editor’s note: Arlene prepared this paper as her final semester project for a class she audited at Oberlin College and Conservatory, MHST 290: Introduction to African American Music, taught by Professor Fredara Mareva Hadley.]


Music has been a vital part of African American life from the time the first African was kidnapped, sold, shipped to the New World, and enslaved by European colonists in North America. They brought songs and rhythms with them and created new sounds by integrating those with European musical traditions they heard while in captivity. This music became an integral part of African American culture in their daily lives, as well as their Sunday rituals, from the period of enslavement and into the 21st century.

Songs were a natural part of the enslaved people’s Sunday services and many contained coded lyrics reflecting hopes for freedom from enslavement. In the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, these songs were transformed into freedom songs, a vital element of the movement. This paper addresses how those freedom songs impacted the direct action taken to desegregate public accommodations and bring the right to vote to millions of disenfranchised African Americans in the southern states. Particular focus is given to the Freedom Singers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). 

The paper makes specific links between traditional slave songs and freedom songs, noting how the simple substitution of a word or two transformed a prayer to a rallying cry. An accompanying playlist demonstrates those connections. The paper also contains personal reflections of SNCC leaders, members of the Freedom Singers, and the author, who worked for SNCC in the 1960s.

Album cover from The Freedom Singers 1963 recording We Shall Overcome

Historical Background

After a short-lived Reconstruction period of relative freedom for African Americans following the Civil War, power shifted from Republicans to Democrats in the south and blacks were subjected to “Jim Crow” laws, requiring strict segregation of the races in public accommodation, and systematic disenfranchisement through such tactics as poll taxes and literacy tests.  The “Jim Crow” laws were local or state ordinances, but became the law of the land nationally in 1896 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case that separate accommodations for Negroes were constitutional as long as they were “equal.” These laws were only part of the systemic, de facto practices of discrimination in employment, education, housing and virtually every aspect of life for people of color, resulting in severe economic disadvantage, and second-class citizenship status. The “separate but equal” policy remained in effect until the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case in which the Supreme Court reversed Plessy. 

This decision created a sense of empowerment throughout the black community, but the change in the law did not result in the end of discrimination nor the often brutal physical treatment of African Americans. The following summer, 1955, Emmitt Till was lynched in Money, Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman. The murderers were acquitted after a five-day trial and only 67 minutes of deliberation by an all-white jury.

Within a few months of that trial, Rosa Parks, a long-time NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) activist, refused to give up her seat on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama when the driver asked her to move to accommodate a white passenger. She was subsequently arrested, and is quoted as saying, “I thought about Emmett Till, and I could not go back. My legs and feet were not hurting, that is a stereotype. I paid the same fare as others, and I felt violated.”1 Parks’ demonstrative action galvanized the local black community into action. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted over a year, is considered the onset of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.

1963 SNCC sit-in at a Toddle House restaurant in Atlanta

Five years later, in February of 1960, four students from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro sat down at a Woolworth lunch counter “white’s only” section and requested service after purchasing goods at the store. When asked to leave they refused. This action was followed by more than twenty students the next day and lunch counter sit-ins spread throughout the south. In April 1960, many of these students gathered at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina and, with the leadership of Ella Baker, formed SNCC, a group that would become a major force over the next several years. SNCC played a significant role in many key actions –  the 1961 Freedom Rides; the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; the Mississippi Freedom Summer, culminating in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge of the Mississippi delegation’s credentials to the 1964 Democratic Party’s national convention; and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March.

The Role of Freedom Songs in the Mid-20th Century Civil Rights Movement

Music played a critical role in all these burgeoning civil rights campaigns, as early as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. “As a local movement grew in Montgomery, singing became a strong force in unifying people in the struggle.”2 Mass meetings for this action and those that followed in the 1960s typically took place in churches, where singing was an essential element of the service. 

Many commonly known hymns, spirituals and gospel songs began to take on a new meaning when they were part of a mass meeting. Soon small adaptations were made which gave even sharper focus to traditional words. “We’ve got the light of freedom, we’re gonna let it shine”3

At mass meetings, music was mixed into the program alternating with motivational speeches of civil rights leaders from the local community as well as from organizations such as SNCC, CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s organization). The music served to motivate people to participate, inspire them to feel a part of something transformative, and create a sense of solidarity not only with their local community but also with a national movement creating “the second American revolution.”4 Most importantly, when demonstrators knowingly faced the terrorism of their oppressors, music served to help calm their fears and steel their resolve.

Birmingham (AL) fire department workers turning fire hoses on civil rights demonstrators in 1963

In an interview by composer/scholar William Banfield, Bernice Johnson Reagon, a founding member of The SNCC Freedom Singers, talks of the role of music:

(T)his was definitely the way I saw music working in the Civil Rights movement. There were those times when we were moving in new ways, and going against everything we had been taught that might keep us safe, and as we moved forward, terrified, and possibly facing real physical danger, we used the songs and the singing. It never stopped the bullet or a jailing, or kept you from losing your job or being suspended from school, but music kept you from being paralyzed, it kept you moving.5

Churches were natural places for these mass meetings, as they were the one safe haven for African Americans to gather in the South, a tradition that harks back to the period of enslavement when Sundays were the only day of the week when the enslaved were not under constant scrutiny of the enslavers. Churches were places where blacks felt trust in and connections with all those around them. 

Minor adaptations in the words of traditional hymns sung in these churches transformed them into the freedom songs of the civil rights movement. In an interview with John Lewis, chairman of SNCC from 1963-66, Bernice Reagon quotes him:

One of the earliest songs I remember very well that became very popular was “Amen”

Amen Amen Amen Amen Amen

Freedom Freedom Freedom Freedom Freedom

This song represented the coming together, you really felt it – it was like you were part of the crusade, a holy crusade. You felt uplifted and involved in a great battle and a great struggle.6

She continued with her own comments: “A simple change from ‘Amen’ to ‘Freedom’ made it a musical statement of the ultimate national goal of the student activists.”7

Most of the freedom songs were upbeat and had a call-to-action message, with titles like Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘RoundWe Shall Not be MovedWoke Up This Morning With My Mind on Freedom and Which Side Are You On? In addition to these songs motivating and inspiring participants, they also played an important external role when they were sung during marches and demonstrations, and even in jail. They reached out to supporters who might not have joined yet, and many of them would be on the picket lines the next day. The songs made a strong statement to the police, the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizen Councils and the people who snarled racial epithets and spat at them that there would be no cowering in this movement. SNCC and other organizations, and particularly local community members who were risking their jobs, homes, even their lives, were declaring that they were serious, they meant business, and they were not going away until their demands were met.

Demonstrators, including Martin Luther King and John Lewis, singing Freedom Songs on the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965

We Shall Overcome held a special position in the civil rights movement in general, and in SNCC in particular. Each mass meeting and even each planning meeting ended with everyone singing We Shall Overcome. We all stood, crossed our arms and held hands with the people next to us, creating a bond throughout the room that could not be broken. This song was much more solemn and prayerful with words of hope for the future that all the hard work of the day would pay off someday.

The SNCC Freedom Singers served the movement in another significant way by supporting the organization’s fundraising efforts. They toured the nation, playing in front of crowds of supporters where they spread the word, and helped finance SNCC’s operations. Accompanying them on these tours were well known activist/entertainers like Nina Simone, Pete Seeger, and Harry Belafonte helping to boost attendance. A group of original Freedom Singers continues to perform, especially at 50th anniversary commemorations of specific events of the 60s.

Musical links to the past

The freedom songs of the civil rights movement draw from a rich historical culture beginning hundreds of years earlier in our nation’s history. During the period of enslavement African Americans were allowed to congregate in groups on Sunday, their day of rest. Early on, white ministers taught them the Christian religion of the European colonists. Later they were often allowed to meet alone, so long as what the enslavers heard were recognizable as prayers and hymns. These gatherings became the birthplace of African American church culture, much of which is still alive today. Music played a vital role in that development and spilled over into their secular world as well. 

Following the Civil War and emancipation, the African American culture evolved, in part, through the establishment of Black churches and new institutions to educate free black men and women (what are now referred to as Historically Black Colleges and Universities). In both cases music played significant roles in their infrastructure and in the ability to raise funds for their operations. The hymns sung by the enslaved people in their enclaves on Sunday became the hymns they sang in their churches. Many of the freedom songs of the 60s were directly derived from those slave songs, supplemented by hymns and spirituals composed by African Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Members of the Freedom Singers and others were also inspired to compose new songs. This section focuses on the connection between freedom songs and the historical songs of enslavement, with one major exception, We Shall Overcome, which is based on a composed hymn from 1901.

There are many sources for understanding the traditional hymns and spirituals upon which freedom songs are based, including liner notes of recordings, periodicals and research papers. One website, “Sweet Chariot: The Story of Spirituals,” with a focus on connections to slave spirituals. states: 

The extensive use of spirituals in the struggle for freedom during slavery left a deep imprint in the cultural memory of African Americans and their allies. It is therefore not surprising that during the 1960s and 70s, many of the freedom songs sung by the multi-racial cadre of Civil Rights workers were essentially new versions of old slave spirituals with updated lyrics that expressed the specific needs of the Civil Rights Movement.8

This site also contains illustrative examples of the connections between freedom songs and the slave songs on which they were based. From this list I chose four and added a fifth to create a playlist of five freedom songs paired with the traditional hymns or spirituals that inspired them. The fifth, I’ll Overcome Some Day is a gospel hymn composed by Charles Albert Tindley in 1901. It is included because its accompanying freedom song, We Shall Overcome, was the anthem of the civil rights movement. 

SNCC Freedom Singers: Chuck Neblett, Bernice Johnson, Cordell Reagon, and Rutha Mae Harris

Specific Song Lineages

Following are links to the ten tracks pairing each historical antecedent with the freedom song that was derived from it.

Examining each of these pairings illuminates how relatively simple changes in lyrics and style transformed traditional prayerful songs into tools of the civil rights movement.   

Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed On Jesus is sung by Mississippi Fred McDowell, accompanying himself on the guitar.  It sounds so authentic one can imagine it is an enslaved person singing at a Sunday service. The matching freedom song, performed by the original Freedom Singers, replaces “stayed on Jesus” with “set on Freedom.” It is sung a capella, has a much faster tempo and is much louder. The slave song has verses beginning “walkin’ and talkin with my mind . . . ” and “singin’ and prayin with my mind . . . ” The freedom song also has the “walkin’ and talkin’” phrase, while later verses begin with adaptations such as “ain’t no harm to keep your mind set on freedom.”

Don’t Let Nobody Turn You ‘Round sung by the Pilgrim Jubilees is performed as an arranged spiritual with a lead singer and a choir, accompanied with several instruments. The freedom song, Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn You ‘Round is performed a capella by the Freedom Singers. The slave song’s lyrics include “walkin’ up the King’s highway” which are substituted in the freedom song with “marchin’ up to Freedomland.” The pace is quicker and the attitude one of fighting and protest. Additional verses in the freedom song include “Ain’t gonna let segregation turn me ‘round” with other words substituting for segregation, such as “jailhouse,” “nervous nellies,” “Chief Pritchett,” “Mayor Kelly” and “Uncle Tom.” Noteworthy in this version is the inclusion of local opponents such as the police chief (Pritchett) and mayor (Kelley) of Albany Georgia, thus inspiring people to face them the next day. 

I Shall Not be Moved, performed by “Pops” Staples is paired with We Shall Not Be Moved by the Freedom Singers. The traditional hymn is sung as an arranged spiritual with many instruments, and the freedom song is a capella with strong multi-voice harmony. The words in the main chorus do not change other than changing the first person singular to first person plural:

I (We) shall not, we shall be moved, I (We) shall not we shall be moved, just like a tree standing by the water, I (We) shall not be moved.

Lyrics change in the verses, however. The slave song has ones including “Jesus is my Captain, I shall not be moved” and “I’m on my way to Glory, I shall not be moved,” while the freedom song substitutes “we’re on our way to victory, we shall not be moved” and “segregation is our enemy, it must be removed.”

Neither the title nor the refrain is adapted for the song Oh Freedom, which begins: “Oh Freedom! Oh Freedom! Oh Freedom over me! And before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.” These lyrics suggest that this spiritual was not likely sung during enslavement, but perhaps after emancipation.

The spiritual Oh Freedom probably came into being soon after the end of slavery. Like many African American spirituals, the song has more than one meaning. Not only does it refer to freedom in the world to come after death, as many slave spirituals do, but it celebrates their new freedom in the here and now. In the 1950s and 1960s, the song was commonly sung as part of the Civil Rights Movement.9

On the playlist The Golden Gospel Singers perform the traditional song in an arranged a capella fashion, with a choir background. It contains lines like “no more weepin’” in place of “Oh Freedom!” The freedom song by Sweet Honey in the Rock is from the movie Freedom Song and is part of a mass meeting scene. It is performed a capella, with tambourine. It is more upbeat than the gospel rendition and is similar to a lined hymn with a call/response form. The leader speaks, not sings, the lead verse for each section to make sure those present at the mass meeting know what to sing next. In place of “no more weepin’” are such phrases as “no more beatin’,” “no more Jim Crow,” and “there’ll be singin’.”

The final pairing is not based on a slave song but a composed hymn, I Will Overcome, written by Charles Albert Tindley, one of the most prolific African American gospel hymn composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its accompanying freedom song, We Shall Overcome, was sung more often than any other freedom song and permeated American political culture so fully that these words were spoken by President Lyndon Johnson when he introduced the Voting Rights Bill in a televised speech to a joint session of Congress on March 15, 1965.10 The traditional song is performed by the Reverend Gary Davis, accompanied by guitar and a mixed choir. The singing is interspersed with preaching and contains lines such as “by the precious Lord” and “I heard a voice one day” followed by “I Shall Overcome.” The Freedom Singers, with Chuck Neblett providing strong bass lines, sing a capella with some well-arranged call/response, and such substituted phrases as “we are not alone . . . today (for someday)” and “black and white together” introducing new verses.


I was a member of SNCC from 1960 to 1966 and worked as a field secretary in Arkansas in 1964-65. During that time I had many opportunities to sing freedom songs and listen to the Freedom Singers perform. The experience was invigorating and helped me appreciate the importance of the work my colleagues and I were doing. These were also joyful times when we would look into each other’s eyes, understanding the sacrifices we were making, and believing (or, at least, hoping) that the work we were doing was really making the world a better place for African Americans, and, as a result, for all of us. When we sang We Shall Overcome at the end of every meeting, we would shout out the new verses such as: “We are not afraid,” “Black and white together,” and “The truth shall make us free,” but when it came time to finish the song with one more refrain of “We Shall Overcome” it was a little more solemn and prayerful, knowing that there were many obstacles ahead of us before we achieved our dreams of freedom for all. 

Though we have come a long way in the fifty years since the peak of SNCC’s activities, the long march to justice is not over. The power of those freedom songs, and the legacy from which they are derived, still resonates. Composers and musicians in various genres – folk, blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, and contemporary classical – continue to write and play pieces connected with the civil rights movement.  In 2012 composer/trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith published a four CD set entitled Ten Freedom Summers,11 which treats this musical legacy in a more abstract but no less effective manner. At a concert I attended at which he played selections from those recordings, he spoke movingly about the work and its meaning:

This music is about the Civil Rights Movement. We call it a movement, because it isn’t finished yet. This movement is about Human Rights, for all humans. That’s a big mistake that a lot of people make, thinking the movement is just about rights for black folks. But it’s about rights for all of us. And we ain’t there yet. So I need you all to help me relight that torch.12

Wadada Leo Smith at Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in October 2012


[1] A Pivotal Moment in the Civil Rights Movement, Facing History and Ourselves (www.facinghistory.org

[2] Guy and Candie Carawan, Liner notes, Sing for Freedom, The Story of the Civil Rights Movement through its Songs

[3] Ibid

[4] Anthony Lewis, Portrait of a Decade: The Second American Revolution, Random House, 1964

[5]”The Music Kept Us from Being Paralyzed: A Talk with Bernice Johnson Reagon,” in Black Notes: Essays of A Musician Writing in a Post-Album Age, William C. Banfield, 2004. Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland. 

6] Bernice Johnson Reagon, “Let the Church Sing ‘Freedom’, Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 7, 1987

[7] ibid

[8] Sweet Chariot: The Story of the Spirituals. Freedom Songs of the Civil Rights Movement: Slave Spirituals Revived, A multidisciplinary online curriculum by The Spirituals Project at the University of Denver, ©2004 Center for Teaching & Learning

[9] Ballad of America, http://www.balladofamerica.com/music/indexes/songs/ohfreedom/index.htm 

[10] History Matters, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6336/

[11] Wadada Leo Smith, Ten Freedom Summers, Cunieform Records, ASIN: B007JZFX9C

[12] Wadada Leo Smith, speaking at Kerrytown Concert House, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2012 Edgefest, October 31-November 3, 2012


Books, Periodicals and Liner Notes:

Banfield, William C., Black Notes: Essays of A Musician Writing in a Post-Album Age, Chapter entitled: The Music Kept Us from Being Paralyzed: A Talk with Bernice Johnson Reagon,” Scarecrow Press, 2004. 

Carawan, Guy and Candie, Liner notes, Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement through its Songs, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, ASIN: B000001DHL

Lewis, Anthony, Portrait of a Decade: The Second American Revolution, Random House, 1964

Reagon, Bernice Johnson, “Let the Church Sing ‘Freedom’”, Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 7, 1987


American Social History Project / Center for Media and Learning (Graduate Center, CUNY), website of Lyndon B. Johnson’s speech to Joint session of Congress, March 15, 1965, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6336/ 

Facing History and Ourselves (www.facinghistory.org)

Oh Freedom! Website page: http://www.balladofamerica.com/music/indexes/songs/ohfreedom/index.htm


Davis, Rev. Gary, At Home and Church, 1962-67, Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, ASIN: B0031DRW1S 

Freedom Singers, The, We Shall Overcome, Vinyl Masters, ASIN: B00DVAWI2E 

Freedom Song, Turner Home Entertainment, 2006, ASIN: B000BNTMBO.

Golden Gospel Singers, The, Capella Praise, Blue Flame, ASIN: B0000JUB974

McDowell, Fred, The Alan Lomax Recordings, Mississippi Records, ASIN: B0055HVDHM

Pilgrim Jubilee Singers, Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around, Malaco Records, B000001KW0

Sing For Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through its Songs, Smithsonian Folkways, ASIN: B000001DHL

Smith, Wadada Leo, Ten Freedom Summers, Cunieform Records, ASIN: B007JZFX9C

Staples, “Pops”, Peace To The Neighborhood, Virgin Records America Inc., ASIN: B0000S5883S

General Interest

Freedom Singers, Voices of the Civil Rights Movement, 2-CD set, Smithsonian Folkways, ASIN: B000001DJT

Lewis, John, March Book I (Graphic Novel form), Top Shelf Productions, 2013

Ransby, Barbara, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Gender and American Culture), The University of North Carolina Press, 2005

Zinn, Howard, SNCC: The New Abolitionists, Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 1964